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Artificial intelligence in China: should the world celebrate or worry?

By Connor Freitas

Countries including the US are concerned that this technology could be used nefariously

Artificial intelligence in China is a major growth area – and since 2017, the country has embarked on ambitious plans to ensure its technology is world-leading by 2030. AI is being regarded as a silver bullet that will unlock economic transformation, making its defence, manufacturing and agriculture sectors more intelligent. Official estimates suggest that the industry could be worth 400bn Chinese yuan ($56bn) in a few years.

While the levels of investment being made into AI in China are being welcomed by some, given how it will increase our understanding of the technology and potential use cases, its far-reaching plans have alarmed others. Washington and Beijing have already been at loggerheads over trade – but now, the US is concerned about proposals that Chinese AI could be implemented into the military.

For its part, officials in China say great efforts are being made to ensure that AI is developed in a “safe, reliable and controllable way”. A document setting out its vision for the coming years also expresses a desire to play a role in developing international standards. However, it’s unlikely that the US will be willing to take China at its word – and sit idly by as a fellow superpower gains dominance.

Just look at the situation with Huawei, one of China’s best-known tech companies. The telecoms giant is playing an instrumental role in the development of 5G – providing crucial infrastructure to countries around the world. Despite this, there have been concerns that this amounts to a national security risk, with some expressing fears that Huawei could be used as a conduit for espionage by the Chinese government. These are allegations that the company flatly denies, but it hasn’t stopped the US from banning its networking equipment altogether – and pressuring others to do the same.

China AI development is likely to be treated in a similar vein. American firms are already banned from engaging in business with a number of Chinese companies and allegations of technology theft have been swirling around for some time. Washington’s resistance can be attributed to several factors: real concerns that its own position as a world leader in technology could be undermined, worries about Beijing’s intentions and even jealousy that China is able to embark on national projects worth billions with relative ease. Initiatives involving large data sets can be embarked upon at speed in China – but in the US, they would likely proceed at a snail’s pace as data usage and privacy came under scrutiny.

China has also faced allegations that it is using artificial intelligence to violate human rights. Many of these concerns are centred on the country’s treatment of Uighur Muslims, amid claims that up to a million are being held in detention camps. Reports have suggested that advanced facial recognition technology is being deployed to track this minority based on their appearance, keeping tabs wherever they go. Beijing has faced fierce criticism over this practice, with some claiming it amounts to automated racism.

Will Chinese AI reign supreme?

Not everyone believes that Chinese AI is as developed as the US does. Jeffrey Ding, an academic at Oxford University, says that Beijing’s capabilities are often overestimated – and he told Fortune magazine that fears of an arms race between the two countries might be overblown. Nonetheless, reports have suggested that the US could be suffering something of a “brain drain” as its AI specialists head to Asia in search of work.

Speaking of jobs, it’s also worth bearing in mind that while Chinese AI has the potential to drive economic growth, new problems will be created as challenges are solved. Worldwide, some AI experts have estimated that 40 per cent of jobs around the world could be lost as a result of automation in the coming 25 years – and zooming in on China, the agricultural sector could be hit the hardest. Although falling employment levels in farming will be met with a substantial uptick in vacancies for AI engineers and data scientists, ensuring everyone is reskilled to take on new roles may not be possible.

A PwC report recently said that government policy will be nothing short of crucial in ensuring that artificial intelligence in China delivers a good outcome for its workers. The authors added: “Although our central estimate is that the net effect of AI on jobs will be positive in China, as opposed to broadly neutral in a mature economy like the UK, there are many uncertain factors that could tip the balance towards more optimistic or pessimistic scenarios.”

China AI development is continuing apace. The technological landscape today has thrown up surprises that couldn’t have been predicted a decade ago – and who knows how well-developed artificial intelligence in China will be by the end of the 2020s. Whatever happens, countries such as the US will be keeping a very close eye on its activities.

FURTHER READING: Artificial intelligence could boost global economy by $14 trillion – but has one vital flaw

FURTHER READING: Military artificial intelligence: safety and ethical issues explained

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